The New York Times Style Magazine published “To the First Lady, With Love,” today (October 17). The collection of letters from “We Should All Be Feminists” writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Angie Tribeca” actress Rashida Jones, feminist organizer Gloria Steinem and writer and presidential historian Jon Meacham comes on the heels of Michelle Obama’s recent critique of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and focuses on how she has changed the game during her eight years in the White House.
See key passages from each of the essays below, then read the full article here.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
She first appeared in the public consciousness, all common sense and mordant humor, at ease in her skin. She had the air of a woman who could balance a checkbook, and who knew a good deal when she saw it, and who would tell off whomever needed telling off. She was tall and sure and stylish. She was reluctant to be first lady, and did not hide her reluctance beneath platitudes. She seemed not so much unique as true. She sharpened her husband’s then-hazy form, made him solid, more than just a dream….
Because she said what she thought, and because she smiled only when she felt like smiling, and not constantly and vacuously, America’s cheapest caricature was cast on her: the Angry Black Woman. Women, in general, are not permitted anger—but from [B]lack American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted.
“I love this country,” she said to applause. She needed to say it—her salve to the hostility of people who claimed she was unpatriotic because she had dared to suggest that, as an adult, she had not always been proud of her country.
If feminism’s goal is equal opportunity and choice, Michelle makes me feel like every choice is available. You can go to Princeton and Harvard, you can rap with Missy Elliott, you can be a mother and a lawyer and a powerful orator. You can champion the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, while also caring about fashion. You can dance with Ellen and also fearlessly remind people, on live television, of the reality of your position: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, [B]lack young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” You can be your husband’s partner and supporter, and also use your cultural and political capital to campaign for Hillary Clinton, unflinchingly standing up to her “locker room talk”-ing bully of an opponent with the battle cry “enough is enough!”—eloquently putting into words what a lot of people, myself included, had been feeling.
Michelle Obama will have her own legacy, separate from her husband’s. And it will be that she was the first first lady to show women that they don’t have to choose. That it’s okay to be everything.
After a decade under a public microscope, she has managed what no other first lady—and few people in any public position—have succeeded in doing: She has lived a public life without sacrificing her privacy and authenticity. She made her husband both more human and effective as a president by being his interpreter and defender, but also someone we knew was capable of being his critic. Eventually, she spoke up about the pain of the racist assumptions directed at her, but she waited until her husband could no longer be politically punished for her honesty. And she has always been the best kind of mother, which means insisting that fathers be equal parents. All of this she has done with honesty, humor and, most important, kindness….
Though I’m old enough to remember Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House—and all the couples and families since—I have never seen such balance and equal parenting, such love, respect, mutuality and pleasure in each other’s company. We will never have a democracy until we have democratic families and a society without the invented categories of both race and gender. Michelle Obama may have changed history in the most powerful way—by example.
President Obama gets much of the public credit for handling his eight years coolly, but the first lady has been a critical element of his success. She has chosen her shots carefully—not least in choosing to make the case against Donald Trump on the campaign trail in 2016—and is leaving the country with a warm impression of an excellent mother, a steady spouse and a sensible, devoted American.
Not everyone agrees, of course; not everyone ever does. The Obama skeptics and the Obama haters have from time to time questioned her patriotism, but this is the same country that managed, in some quarters, to hold Eleanor Roosevelt in contempt. The important thing is that Mrs. Obama, a clear-eyed lawyer, found a way to withstand the scrutiny of the spotlight. In point of fact, she did more than withstand it. To borrow a phrase from William Faulkner, she not only endured it; she prevailed over it.